BRUSSELS – The European Union lashed out Monday at pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, accusing it of failing to guarantee delivery of coronavirus vaccines without valid explanation, and threatened to impose tight export controls within days on COVID-19 vaccines made in the bloc.
Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the EU, already facing heavy criticism for a slow vaccine rollout around its 27 nations, “will take any action required to protect its citizens and its rights."
The EU, which has 450 million citizens and the economic and political clout of the world's biggest trading bloc, is lagging badly behind countries like Israel and Britain in rolling out coronavirus vaccine shots for its health care workers and most vulnerable people. That's despite having over 400,000 confirmed virus deaths since the pandemic began.
The shortfall of planned deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is expected to get medical approval in the bloc on Friday, combined with hiccups in the distribution of Pfizer-BioNTech shots is putting EU nations under pressure.
“EU member states are united: vaccine developers have societal and contractual responsibilities they need to uphold," Kyriakides said after two tense negotiating sessions with AstraZeneca that ended late Monday. Both sides will reconvene Wednesday.
The backlog is all the more galling since Kyriakides said the EU had paid 2.7 billion euros ($3.28 billion) to several pharma companies to back the rapid development and ramp up the production potential of several vaccines.
She said Monday's talks ended “in dissatisfaction with the lack of clarity and insufficient explanations." The open lack of trust contrasted sharply with the exultant tone only a few months ago when the leading pharma giants made quick and massive strides toward a vaccine against a pandemic the likes of which had not been seen in over a century.
“With our Member States, we have requested from (AstraZeneca) a detailed planning of vaccine deliveries and when distribution will take place," she said in a Twitter message.
Kyriakides immediately got the support from the bloc’s largest member on the vaccine export controls plan.
“We, as the EU, must be able to know whether and what vaccines are being exported from the EU,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. “Only that way can we und erstand whether our EU contracts with the producers are being served fairly. An obligation to get approval for vaccine exports on the EU level makes sense.” Humanitarian deliveries would be exempt.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen held urgent talks with AstraZeneca chief Pascal Soriot, and EU nations also met with AstraZeneca to encourage the British-Swedish company to ramp up its vaccine production and meet its contractual targets.
The EU has committed to buying 300 million AstraZeneca doses with option on 100 million extra shots. Late last week, the company said it was planning to reduce a first contingent of 80 million to 31 million.
The European Medicines Agency is scheduled to review the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine Friday and its approval is hotly anticipated. The AstraZeneca vaccine is already being used in Britain and has been approved for emergency use by half a dozen countries, including India, Pakistan, Argentina and Mexico.
AstraZeneca's announcement that it will deliver fewer vaccines to the EU early on has only increased pressure on the bloc, especially since Pfizer-BioNTech, the first vaccine to get EU approval, failed last week to keep up its promised deliveries to the EU. Pfizer has temporarily reduced vaccine deliveries to the EU and Canada as it revamps its plant in Belgium to increase overall production. Italy has threatened to sue Pfizer for the delays.
The political pressure started with von der Leyen's phone call to the AstraZeneca chief. “She made it clear that she expects AstraZeneca to deliver on the contractual arrangements foreseen in the advance purchasing agreement," said her spokesman Eric Mamer.
“She reminded Mr. Soriot that the EU has invested significant amounts in the company up front precisely to ensure that production is ramped up even before the conditional market authorization is delivered by the European Medicines Agency."
The company said in a statement that Soriot "stressed the importance of working in partnership and how AstraZeneca is doing everything it can to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.”
The delays will be make it harder to meet early targets in EU's goal of vaccinating 70% of its adult population by late summer.
The EU has signed six vaccine contracts for more than 2 billion doses, but only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use so far.
Geir Moulson in Berlin, and Danica Kirka in London, contributed to this report.
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